Taylor Swift recently reached a rite of passage typical of pop stardom: She sanctioned and participated in a documentary about herself. In the tradition of Madonna: Truth or Dare, Katy Perry: Part of Me, and Gaga: Five Foot Two, Netflix’s Miss Americana: Taylor Swift, offers a slice of a life lived largely. That’s its ostensible goal, at least. How convincing or successful it is, however, is up for debate. In that spirit, Jezebel’s resident Swiftie Shannon Melero and someone who would be completely content if he never heard from Taylor Swift again for the rest of his life (while acknowledging her capacity to write a catchy tune), Rich Juzwiak, watched Miss Americana and compared notes. The results are below.
Rich: Probably the most reasonable (and perhaps most useful) place to start to evaluate Miss Americana is by its own standards. Despite being opaque and, from what I can make out, meager, this doc fails to live up even to them. Early on, we see one of the more plausibly candid scenes of Swift on the receiving end of a phone call in which she is informed that her 2017 album Reputation failed to be nominated in any of the major Grammy categories. On one hand, this scene asks for what many other scenes in this movie also do: sympathy for a superstar whose profile remains in the upper echelon of culture and whose bank account is considerable enough so that she will never want for anything ever in her life. We are to feel bad that Swift is not as popular as she once was—as if mass, unquestioning adoration devoid of scrutiny is something that a human being can be entitled to. We are supposed to get a sense that this person, who’s been given the rare opportunity this story in a major documentary on a major platform (Netflix), is somehow disenfranchised, which is absurd enough to turn this entire affair into a pretty hilarious bit of self-parody if you want to view it as such.
But I point out this scene because it provides a pathway for the rest of the narrative presented: Swift resolves to make a better album, and the documentary traces the recording of 2019’s Lover. That it coincides with her political coming out as liberal is set up to coalesce into some sort of triumph of expression: At last, Swift has learned what it is to communicate in public on her terms, creatively and discursively. The problem with this setup is that Lover was, largely, disappointing: an overstuffed record of unspecific “stories” that, most crucial to this point, failed to yield any real smash hits. The documentary’s narrative must settle for Swift winning a freakin’ VMA for its climax where firmer proof of her being back on top would be more useful to its conventions. It’s like Swift, director Lana Wilson, and whoever else helped shape this thing decided Lover would be a hit, and then went ahead and made the doc they envisioned anyway when it wasn’t. This is, perhaps, unsurprising for someone who, as she says in the film, always has her life planned out in advance. But the calculation required to run the industry of Taylor Swift does not lend itself to coherent or convincing filmmaking.
The idea of Swift finding her voice after having been indoctrinated into superstardom by intentionally playing the middle with the deftness of a professional card shark (and then behaving as if this decorum as foisted onto her by patriarchy) is frequently repeated. “I was so fulfilled by approval that that was it. I became the person who everyone wanted me to be,” she interviews. But there’s little here to suggest that she is not still doing that—the film is almost entirely anesthetized of candor. The slice-of-life stuff is blank (watch Swift eating with a friend in her house that looks like an Almodovar set, as they drink wine with ice in it and discuss how child-rearing is like raising a Tomogotchi), and we see no overt indication of casual negativity.
There are no diva fits; there’s not even shade. She is palpably elusive in an interview regarding her fraught relationship with food—she only uses the phrase “eating disorder” to note that it’s not a phrase she used when she wasn’t eating (“You don’t ever say to yourself, ‘I’ve got an eating disorder,’ but you make a list of everything you’re putting in your mouth that day and you know that’s probably not right...”). There’s no real indication of how her issues with food resolved if, in fact, they had. To be clear, I’m not suggesting that I’m entitled to know anything about Taylor Swift’s relationship with food, and I’m certainly not suggesting she shouldn’t illustrate how life in the spotlight can affect such matters; what I’m saying is that after not having asked the question, I’ve been given a really threadbare answer from someone who prides herself on her ability to tell stories.
I have to disagree with her there—Miss Americana is not told particularly clearly. The movie is besotted with professional distortion. I felt like a lot of the reality was banished to the subtextual. Swift’s political engagement can be traced back to her own experiences, which can be said for many of us, but is nonetheless indicative of egocentrism that pervades her discussions about practically everything. I thought her assessment of certain situations was tellingly out of focus: She recounts the devastation she felt as “#taylorswiftisoverparty” trended at No. 1 worldwide (“Do you know how many people have to tweet that they hate you for that to happen?”) while not acknowledging the fans that put her in the position to be judged in the first place, or again, tell this story on Netflix. And a subtextually real documentary is no kind of documentary that I can endorse. (That said, I thought she was clear, concise, and righteous when she talked about being sexually assaulted and humiliated by David Mueller.)
All the while, she’s spelling this stuff out slowly—so much of the movie is her speaking to the camera—and I feel like I’m being talked to like I’m stupid. In that sense, Miss Americana has aesthetics of propaganda, but none of its conviction. Besides a general “Yay Taylor!” sort of sentiment, I don’t feel the movie has much pointed to say. At least propaganda knows exactly what it’s trying to drill into you.
Anyway, that was a lot. I had to get it out. Shannon, please tell me why and how I’m wrong.
Shannon: The Taylor Swift documentary is actually a miraculous body of work in that Taylor spends the entire time—in a film that is supposedly an attempt to speak to her fans—not speaking to them at all. She keeps up the pristine Taylor Swift image, by not saying anything at all. It’s stagecraft, and it’s performed to perfection; that’s why none of this feels like a believable documentary. She still gets to walk away as Taylor Swift, the unblemished package without ever having to show the audience Taylor Allison, the human being. It’s this ability to hide in plain sight that makes her so fascinating, and it’s the thing that will keep Taylor Swift on top for years to come. That and her unfailing ability to write earworm tunes about whatever is happening in her life, at least whatever the fans are allowed to know.
As a fan, Miss Americana was a pleasant but frustrating experience. It’s always nice to have Taylor on my screen even if she is blatantly misleading me. But I’m not mad about it. Much like she signed up to be the well-liked good girl, I (and much of her fanbase) have signed up to accept the crumbs resembling a personality she gives us, in exchange for an album every few years. Taylor has always held up her end of the bargain, so hear me out when I say that the problem with Miss Americana is not Taylor Swift’s refusal to be candid. It’s the refusal of the fanbase to let her be a 30-year-old woman. “Some people say, artists are frozen at the age they got famous,” she muses toward the end of the documentary. She’s right, and that’s the frustrating part. She is so aware of the trap but won’t do enough to unmake it, and the Swifties refuse to let go of the 16-year-old sitting on stage in a sparkly dress singing “Teardrops on my Guitar.” I understand not wanting to give that up. It’s a great song.
Taylor wants to maintain her career—this is a fair and logical thing to want. I, too, would want to continue doing the thing that made me a millionaire. She also wants to grow into the person she feels she is becoming. This person is politically minded, marred by an eating disorder, has been publicly groped and shamed by men she didn’t know. She’s also—and I cannot stress this enough—30 years old. This is the conflict at the heart of Miss Americana. It’s not Taylor versus the patriarchy or Taylor versus the music industry; it’s the two versions of Taylor battling it out in short shorts and sparkly blazers. All this is put on display, so people not familiar with the outer workings of Taylor’s identity will feel bad for her. But as much as I love Taylor and will continue to love her, there’s no reason to be willfully stupid. My beloved Taylor is trapped in a cage of her own making. If Taylor would fully commit to this adult person that she showed slivers of in Miss Americana, the toxic part of the fanbase would wither away, and the true Swifties would stick around. She talked a lot about female artists having to continually reinvent themselves. What if her next reinventions could be the final take. Then we could argue about Miss Americana 2: No Longer a Patriot.
Rich: I really like that you’re able to not just acknowledge her faults, but enjoy them. So many stans don’t! They pretend like their patron saint is perfect.
Shannon: I love a faulty bitch.
Rich: Same. It’s bizarre that more people don’t? I thought that was the fun of following pop stars closely?
Shannon: I feel like it’s nuts that her fans need her to be perfect. When she got “canceled” for that Kanye phone call thing, that was a real high point for me. GET MESSY TAYLOR. Question for both of us: So, obviously Taylor got the call this awards season that Lover wasn’t going to be nominated for a Grammy. Do we think she had a similar reaction to the Reputation news or is she at peace with that album?
Rich: She could be getting used to the Grammys stuff by now—it was pretty clear early on, after the lukewarm response to “ME!,” that this album was not the commercial juggernaut that she had crafted it to be. But it’s a good question because there is a chance that she’s not used to it. One thing about these (effectively) self-released rock docs is that timing is crucial. The godmother of all diva docs, Madonna: Truth or Dare, caught its subject at her utter commercial peak (when her every release was a guaranteed hit) and it has the energy that only lightning in a bottle can provide. Conversely, Miss Americana captures Swift during a slight downturn—it would be unwise to count her out entirely, but her songs don’t perform like they did during her Red/1989 eras. This post-peak time in a pop singer’s career fascinates me: When mass adoration takes over your life to the point of helping shape your identity, what’s left of you when it dissipates?
The biggest disappointment of Miss Americana for me isn’t that it doesn’t present a human I’m interested in spending time with (I knew it wouldn’t, going into it); it’s that it doesn’t present a case study that’s particularly compelling. The data-collecting is lazy, the results inconclusive. Swift, aware of the ticking clock of people’s ability to tolerate her success (to paraphrase how she puts it)... seems just kind of wistful and conflicted about it. Portions of her humanity were suppressed in exchange for superstardom, but now that her profile has diminished ever so slightly, the ensuing humanity still feels just skin deep. It reads like she’s in some sort of limbo, publicly, but I’m left wondering how much there is really there, in her private life.
You know, when she discusses her newly empowered image and says she wants to show the world that wearing pink and talking about politics doesn’t have to cancel each other out it’s just like... duh? Haven’t we been through this so many times already in the very arena of popular music? For decades? Are we just doomed to repeat ourselves, being pseudo-impressed with the same shallow insights until the world overheats and we all die in front of our TVs?
And speaking of the future, where does Taylor Swift go from here?
Shannon: I appreciate that you know that I hope to die in front of my TV. I didn’t think we were that close for it to be so obvious. This is great. As far as how I think she reacted to Lover not getting anything, I think there was the initial shock for a bit because she put a lot of eggs in this one basket, especially coming off of the Scooter/Big Machine debacle, but I don’t think she sat on her couch and cried that the next album was going to be better. That being said, it won’t be that hard for her next album to be better and potentially put her back on the Grammy stage. Taylor has a lot of flaws, but if there’s anything she’s good at, it’s writing hits.
I think there are a few factors happening at present that ensure we will get at least two more albums from her in the next 10 years and one of them will be the second coming of 1989. I claim it and I receive it. The first factor is that Taylor is undergoing her feminist awakening. She’s swimming through the first wave right now and will make her way upstream soon enough so we’re going to get a healthy amount of girl power anthems with subtle political messaging similar to “The Man,” which slaps, and I’ll stand by that song until my last breath. There’s also Taylor’s journey with her mother’s cancer. I am optimistic that Andrea Swift will recover and live out the rest of her days in good health, however, the road to being a survivor is long and wrought with unimaginable trials. No doubt this is going to affect Taylor on the deepest personal level, and she’s shown that writing and composing music are how she heals, so we can expect some somber tunes and (I’m hoping) one victory tune when Andrea is in the clear. Then, of course, there’s Swift’s boyfriend. Whether they stay together or break up, one boyfriend is equivalent to one full album.
Where does Taylor go from here? She goes back to her perfect cats and her piano. She’ll spend some time out of the spotlight to nurse her ego about the Grammys and get back to plotting the next album. My prediction is: a year from now she’s teasing a new single and the Swifties are going full detective mode to figure out the title and how to get into secret listening parties. Although if I were Taylor Swift’s manager, I’m sitting her down in a meeting and talking to her about getting away from Jack Antonoff for a bit and maybe sitting down with a producer who can give her some new sounds. As much as I love Brendan Urie and Todrick Hall, Taylor needs to take her new attitude and do a huge project with Cardi B or Rosalia or ANYONE that’s not going to look like some new friend she’s adopted for the time being.